Interview with 17-Year-Old Founder Kegan Abbott

January 15, 2015

11:00 am

Teen entrepreneur Kegan Abbott was on a quick trip to Silicon Valley, looking to recruit developers for his startup Printware, when he got some valuable advice from a homeless man.

It was raining in San Jose, and a grocery store employee was trying to kick the homeless man out. So Abbott bought him a sandwich, sat down with him in the cafe, and ended up getting a tip.

“[The man] said, ‘I can tell you do too much for other people.’ He said, ‘Slow down, listen to your heart, and do what you think is right.’” So Abbott called his parents and told them he was extending his trip for a month to recruit the right people for Printware.

He ended up staying for free in a hacker house, making a deal with the host to help improve the experience for other guests. He cooked meals, made coffee, cleaned, and even wrote parking ticket appeals for non-native English speakers. All the while, he was meeting with developers, designers, and marketers, and having lunch every day with someone new. When the month was up, Printware had three programmers, a designer, and a product manager.

Abbott had started coding at 14 and cofounded Printware with his father at age 15. He had the idea for Printware when he was trying to print out a school project, the printer was out of ink, and his teacher told him it would take two weeks to get fixed – way too long. Abbott cobbled together a coding education from online videos and forums, a book on Objective C, and a bit of trial and error, and created a prototype in two weeks.

With his father in the print industry, they immediately started pitching to industry experts and getting feedback. They had their first investor four months later, their first seed funding in 2013 (just as Abbott turned 16), and will launch in DC with some beta clients this year.

I sat down with Abbott to hear more about balancing high school and entrepreneurship, learning to code, and the hardest part of starting up (for people of any age).

Tech Cocktail: What motivated you to learn to build apps?

Kegan Abbott: I had just been studying for different certifications – IT certifications, CompTIA certifications – and I was getting a consistent message in the online communities: if you know the basics of computing, if you know the CompTIA, you need to learn some kind of programming language.

I started with an HTML book my first week being a freshman in HS. I subsequently threw that out four days later because it was so mind-numbingly boring that I knew I would absolutely never do anything like it. I had read online that “Oh, if you want to be a programmer, you have to start with HTML, and then you have to learn C and C++. And if you want to build iPhone apps, you have to learn these four other languages and get the blood of a unicorn and maybe you can make an iPhone app.” I just thought, “No, I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to learn all these other languages, I don’t even know what those are and I don’t know where to find a unicorn, so I’m just going to get an Objective C book and I’m going to find my way through it.”

Tech Cocktail: How do you balance school and entrepreneurship?

Kegan Abbott: The busiest times are when I’m in development sprints. So I’d get up about 6 am, my father and I would have coffee, sit for a half an hour in the living room and talk through events of the day, what’s going on, where we are in the process. Sometimes, on really exciting mornings, we’d be drawing on the whiteboard when it’s 6 o’clock in the morning and still dark outside.

I’d shower, get dressed, leave the house at 7, and I’d be at school by 7:10. School started at 7:17 – really awkward time – and I got out at 2:05. We had an hour for lunch, and I had a couple teachers who would let me sit in their back offices or sit in their rooms and use the computers, and eat my lunch there instead of having to go to the cafeteria. For the past three years, I’ve pretty much just eaten my lunch over a computer because I was busy emailing or checking code. I don’t really have any signal in school, so I’d basically just be checking in for an hour. It actually gave me enough time to catch up because my West Coast developers were asleep, so I’d get what they’d sent me in the night and then when they were still sleeping, I’d check it, fix it, make comments, send it over, and by the time I got out of school they were just getting up.

I’d get out of school, take about an hour for myself and some homework, get a snack, and then it was right back to work. So by 3:00 in the afternoon, I was back on Skype, reading articles, reading startup books – lot of reading, lot of studying – designing more wireframes, thinking how can I go through this, just trying to tear my product apart and look at it agnostically. My dad would come home, we’d do dinner, talk for another hour, hour and a half about “What if we change this feature? How does this work?” Maybe he met with someone and he’d show them the app and they’d point out a couple of features, maybe a flaw, and we’d just keep iterating and keep making notes and we’d do that for three, four months at a time. And so from then, 8-9 pm, maybe finish up a little bit of homework, and it was back on Skype. And I always save a little bit of time for myself, finish the night off with Netflix, and get up 6 am and do it again!

Tech Cocktail: What’s the hardest part about it?

Kegan Abbott: Managing and staying strong during both sprints and stagnation. You can’t always be going full steam ahead, and you can’t always be going at a slow pace. It comes in natural waves – we’ll be really busy for two or three months and we’ll be kind of slow for two or three months. A lot of entrepreneurs struggle with staying interested and engaged in the slow periods. It is really easy to go, “Yeah, running a startup is so great, we have funding, we have plenty of clients coming after us,” but when it comes to the nitty-gritty and the actual business end of it, a lot of founders end are pretty much uninterested in running a startup and running the business of it – because running out and getting sales and getting funding and making the news, those are all fun things. But if you can stick around during the non-interesting periods and the slower periods, the tougher business periods, I think that’s definitely hard.

Tech Cocktail: What’s your favorite part about it?

Kegan Abbott: I love to be building products and solving problems. I don’t want to build something that is pretty but not useful. I want to build something that solves everyday problems, that solves issues, that makes something easier for someone. Increasing productivity, profitability. For existing business processes that are done on pen and paper and are inefficient, I love making them easier with technology. I love bringing technology into spaces where technology really isn’t.

Tech Cocktail: Do you have any advice for young app developers?

Kegan Abbott: My motto is say yes and figure it out as you go – that has worked for me for the past three years. Has it always been pretty? Absolutely not.

Don’t stand in fear or in uncertainty. You’re going to face all of these things – fear, uncertainty, lack of attention, people are going to pass you off, they may not like your idea – and you just have to keep moving forward. If you need an iPhone app and you don’t know how to build one, say yes and figure it out. If you have to write a business plan, say yes and figure it out. It may not be perfect, it may not be beautiful, but if you say yes and figure it out as you go, you’ll attract the right connections, the right people to help you out – to look at your business plan and say fix this, fix that; to look at your app, to look at your product. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or what industry it is – don’t say no to opportunities. Don’t lock yourself into a stigma, don’t lock yourself into not being able to be successful.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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